Statue of Hermanubis, a hybrid of Anubis and the Greek god Hermes.

Mummifying Millions: The Canine Catacombs and the Animal Cult Industry of Ancient Egypt

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Many associate two popular themes with ancient Egypt: animal worship and mummies. The two have been combined on unprecedented levels deep in the Catacombs of Anubis in North Saqqara. The necropolis of Saqqara is the burial site of kings, commoners and sacred animals.

Millions upon millions of animal mummies have been found in the dark, carved stone tunnels beneath the location of Egypt’s earliest pyramid. The astounding piles of preserved animal remains not only signify a cultural and religious phenomenon, but also speak to the mammoth industry that operated to maintain a source of constant tributes to the gods.

The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara ”, a study published this month in the archaeological journal Antiquity, examines the underground world associated with the temples dedicated to animal deities of ancient Egypt.

Dog Mummy, 305 B.C.E.-395 C.E. Animal remains, linen, painted. Brooklyn Museum

Dog Mummy , 305 B.C.E.-395 C.E. Animal remains, linen, painted. Brooklyn Museum

Study authors Paul T. Nicholson, Salima Ikram, and Steve Mills write, “The intention of this new work has been to investigate animal cults with a focus on the animals themselves, the individuals who operated aspects of the cult (e.g. animal breeders, priests) and the subterranean structures associated with them. The temples and shrines, though undeniably significant, are often only the tip of the iceberg”.

While animal worship has been long associated with ancient Egypt, the actual mummified animals used for ritual purpose have not been closely examined until recently.

Nicholson and colleagues mapped the catacombs, an underground series of galleries extending over 4946.84 square meters (53247.34 square feet). Researchers also examined the mummies to determine approximately how many would have been held in the underground chambers, how the animals might have been procured and prepared.

They also worked to resolve why some of the chambers had the telltale black powder remains of mummies— but were found completely empty. Why had hundreds of thousands of bodies been removed from some tunnels and not others?

The Saqqara catacombs served as the burial places of animal tributes to the jackal-headed deity Anubis. Between this study, and other studies by Egyptologists from University of Manchester , it can be seen that the millions of dogs sacrificed and mummified to the canine deity were only one part of a wider practice of sacred animal cults.

Mummified dog, Taggart School Museum, Assuyt, Middle Egypt

Mummified dog, Taggart School Museum, Assuyt, Middle Egypt ( Flickr)

During the First Dynasty (3100 – 2890 BC) it was believed the sacred animals were the avatars or manifestations of their look-alike gods— in this case canines were seen as the embodiment of Anubis.

Excavation team leader Salima Ikram, archaeologist and professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo writes in her paper , “Killing Man's best friend” that as the god of embalming, Anubis accompanied the deceased from this world to the afterlife, and was seen as the patron of travelers. The dogs were thus thought to have been votive offerings to the jackal-headed deity. The better quality the offering, the more favor the donor might receive from Anubis.

Jackal-headed Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased.

Jackal-headed Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased. Public Domain

Over ninety percent of the bodies identified in the catacombs were dogs and other canines such as foxes and jackals. A great many were young and small puppies who had been killed within hours of birth. Select older and bigger dogs had been mummified and placed in carved wall niches in wooden coffins, signifying an elevated status. It is believed these might have been temple animals who had lived out their natural lives before being ceremoniously interred. Researchers believed these more elaborately prepared creatures would have been tributes given by priests or high-status donors.

‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat.

‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The many very young animals, described in the study as neonates, are thought to have been drowned at birth or left to die of starvation, and then prepared within the large industry that was believed to have maintained a steady flow of available tributes.

However, most of the animals were poorly mummified, and the remains were decayed, leaving behind piles of bones and organic matter. Some had only been given cursory preparation; they were laid out in the hot sands to dry out, then wrapped in linen and anointed with oil or resin and then piled in orderly heaps in the catacombs. Larger animals were treated to a more thorough process, including desiccation, evisceration, and then a coating of natron, a drying salt mixture.

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